Zayyan meets Cecilia on the first day of freshman year. He does not believe in love at first sight, but he does believe in the scientific method, and what is this moment if not empirical evidence of the former? She is like no one he has met before. Black hair pulled into a messy bun, bare arms laden with books, brown eyes ardent as a summer storm.
They bump into one another on their way into Woolsey Hall, sending Cecilia’s books and papers scattering, and by the time they’ve picked everything back up they’ve exchanged phone numbers and made plans to have dinner the next evening. It’s the perfect meet-cute. A storybook moment that Zayyan will retell many times, to friends and colleagues and chatty Uber drivers, until it becomes a dog-eared page in the narrative of his life.
Cecilia will confess, years later, that this wasn’t actually the first time they’d met. Months prior to bumping into each other at Woolsey, they were paired up for an icebreaker event during Bulldog Days; they exchanged names, hometowns, favorite movies; they even sat next to one another at lunch afterwards.
When she describes these things, Zayyan will insist that she’s mistaken. He remembers that encounter but feels certain he was paired with a different person entirely, some dull girl with a braying laugh and desperate eyes.
• • • •
He studies physics. She studies fairy tales. English literature, technically, but it’s fairy tales that she loves best.
They read together in the library stacks. She brings her own books, with titles that bewilder him: East Asian Magic, The New Grimoire, Ancient Witchcraft for the Modern Woman. He has never given much thought to anything without a disprovable null hypothesis, but he finds it endearing that she does.
When he brushes a strand of hair out of her face, she glances up, her eyes dreamy, her mind far away. When he teases her about the things she believes in, she graces him with a laugh that sounds like tinkling bells.
She cooks for him often, even though they both have unlimited meal plans in the dining halls, and so Zayyan now has access to dishes that the dining halls don’t provide: Persian food and Chinese food and often some fusion of the two, which he either loves or hates. They eat together in his dorm room while his roommate studies a few feet away; in her dorm room while her suitemates play drinking games around the table; on Old Campus, autumn leaves falling around them.
He associates Cecilia with liminal spaces, in-between places, like the sunbaked line of sand between the sea and the road, or the illegible scrawl of time between waking and dreaming. Something about Cecilia always makes Zayyan feel like she is too good to be true, and the only response he knows is to hold on tighter.
He proposes to her the week after graduation. His parents are hesitant about the cultural gap between their two families, but to Zayyan’s surprise, his older brother Farhan is the only one who strongly objects to their engagement.
“It’s just that you’re moving so fast,” Farhan tells him over the phone, the day after their engagement is announced. “If she’s really the one for you, there’s no harm in waiting.”
“We’ve been together four years. Mom and Dad only knew each other two months before they married.”
“That was different. With Cecilia . . . I just feel like there’s something off about her. Take all that witchcraft stuff she’s into. That stuff gives me the creeps.”
Zayyan tries to keep his voice calm. “She’s my future wife. You don’t have to like her hobbies, but you can’t call her creepy.”
Farhan doesn’t bring up his concerns again, and soon their relationship smooths back to the easy banter it’s always had. Zayyan pushes his brother’s worries to the back of his mind. Farhan has always been overprotective; he spent years defending Zayyan from their parents’ unhappiness at home. Of course he would see a threat in Cecilia, too.
After the wedding, the newlyweds move into a small apartment in Boston where they can both start their careers, Cecilia at a small publishing house and Zayyan at a research lab. They have two children, both boys, one right after the other. Cecilia wants a third, but Ali and Asim keep her so busy already that Zayyan sees no need to sign up for more.
She takes to motherhood the same way she’s taken to every challenge in the past. She prepares special meals for the growing boys; she chauffeurs them to one extracurricular after another; she reads storybooks to them every night, all three of them falling asleep together until Zayyan comes to wake her.
Each time he looks at her, he feels so lucky he could burst.
• • • •
There are moments. A night when he opens the bathroom door, unaware that she’s inside, and sees her reflection in the mirror, makeup smudged into the creases around her eyes. A week when he goes on a business trip and comes home to a woman older and crabbier than the girl he fell in love with.
Still, over the course of their marriage, his brain becomes adept at lying to itself, patching over these inconsistencies. Whenever Cecilia isn’t around, his mental version of her solidifies further, congealing into the romantic ideal of a woman. His love for this perfect woman never wavers, from their perfect meeting to their perfect wedding to each perfect anniversary that follows. He could have lived his whole life this way, tracing a constellation from one storybook moment to another, if not for the summer when his brother Farhan comes to visit.
Farhan arrives unexpectedly one afternoon with a suitcase in each hand. The only explanation he gives, with a stoic kind of misery, is that his wife Noor has filed for separation.
Zayyan has always been used to Farhan being the strong one, the capable one, the one who sang silly songs to cheer him up whenever their parents were fighting in the other room. He doesn’t know how to switch roles.
“Do you want something to eat?” he asks tentatively.
Farhan nods. “That’d be great. I’m half-starved.”
Zayyan checks the fridge. The only thing ready-made is half a pot of the ash reshteh Cecilia made last night, his favorite noodle soup. He microwaves a bowl for each of them.
Farhan downs most of his in a few slurps. “This is delicious. What’s your secret ingredient?”
“That’s not a secret ingredient, man, that’s part of every ash reshteh recipe.”
“You’ll have to ask Cecilia, then. Want seconds?”
Farhan grins. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Cecilia comes home, humming to herself, both of the boys in tow. Ali and Asim run upstairs, loud and boisterous as always. She smiles politely when she sees the two men sitting together at the dining table, but her smile darkens when she sees their empty bowls.
Zayyan clears his throat. “Farhan needs to stay with us for a while. I’m sorry it’s so last minute.”
“Of course. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
Zayyan watches the way Farhan’s gaze follows Cecilia across the room. He’d expected to see distrust there, he’d been resigned to it even, but instead what he sees is something more like open desire.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” Farhan says, a little too quickly. “You’re a lucky guy, that’s all. It’s rare for a woman to look even better at forty than she did on her wedding day.”
The hunger in his brother’s eyes makes Zayyan uneasy. “Hey. Back off.”
He has never seen Farhan ogle a woman this way, like he can’t help himself. Perhaps he’s been jealous of Cecilia this whole time; perhaps that’s why he objected to their engagement.
But something about that theory feels wrong. For the first time, Zayyan feels a seed of doubt take hold in the back of his mind.
Over the next few days this seed grows roots and begins to sprout. Zayyan stops eating the meals that Cecilia serves him, spitting each bite back into his napkin when she looks away. He sneaks down to the halal corner store once or twice a day to buy pre-made sandwiches and packets of jerky that he devours on the walk home.
When Cecilia discovers one of the receipts in his pocket, she seems to find it funny. “Thirty dollars’ worth of snacks in two days? You’d think I haven’t been feeding you properly.”
He chuckles nervously. “Of all the marital problems we might someday have, my love, that one’s last on the list.”
She lets out a braying laugh.
Now, for the first time, he sees her clearly. All his memories of their storybook relationship fall apart upon closer examination, a silver thread unspooling.
That night, when Cecilia takes the boys to soccer practice, Zayyan searches through her belongings. Her nightstand, her wardrobe, her purse.
At last he tries the bookshelves in their small home library. It feels like an intrusion, his being here, even more so than looking through her things. This has always been Cecilia’s space, not his.
He finds nothing unusual. After so many years working in publishing, most of her books are mainstream and respectable, novels and biographies and little about magic or witchcraft.
It takes him a while to find them. All the books she read in college are hidden in the back, behind the books she reads for work. He thumbs through them. There are pages she’s marked up and highlighted, in one book after another, a pattern impossible to refute. “Ancient Persian Love Potion Recipes.” “Concoctions to Bewitch and Beguile.” “How to Make a Man Love You.”
• • • •
The story of his perfect marriage shatters like a bottle smashed against concrete.
When she comes home that night, he can’t bring himself to look her in the eyes. Looking at her, trying to love her, hurts like trying to pick up broken glass with bare fingers.
He doesn’t know what’s real and what’s false anymore. He needs time away to think, to plan.
He leaves the next morning, while she’s asleep, and calls her from the airport so he won’t have to see her face.
“I’m on my way to New York for a couple of days,” he says. “Sorry for the late notice.”
The static on the line blurs her voice. “New York?”
“Farhan wants to go apartment-hunting. He needs my help.”
“I wish you’d told me earlier,” she says, her voice unreadable. “I would have cooked you something for the trip.”
The thought gives him chills. “We’re about to board,” he lies. “I’ll call you when I land.”
• • • •
In New York, Zayyan fills his hours following Farhan to single-bedroom apartments. They visit Brooklyn brownstones and Manhattan high-rises, spaces filled with fake fruit and used furniture. One night in New York turns into two, then three.
Away from Cecilia, his thoughts become legible. He pins down their flapping corners, forces them to hold still so he can examine them properly.
Cecilia isn’t real. Not his version of her, anyway. The thought makes no sense to him, and yet he knows it to be true.
This isn’t what he’d wanted. This isn’t what he’d thought his marriage would be.
He wants to ask Farhan for advice, but he knows his brother will never forgive Cecilia once he knows what she’s done, and Zayyan isn’t ready, not yet, for so permanent a fallout. Farhan doesn’t bring up Noor either.
The last open house they attend is full of couples who comment incessantly to their partners, and the two brothers stand out in their silence. The real estate agent, a chirpy woman wearing lipstick too pale for her skin, ushers them from one room to the next with a rush of effervescent chatter.
The place is exactly what Farhan has been looking for. The stainless-steel kitchen, the red-brick walls, the bay windows.
In the bedroom, one of the women whispers to her husband, “This place is a steal.”
“I heard someone died in here a few years ago,” another woman says. “That’s why the property value went down.”
The real estate agent appears behind her to interject quickly, nervously. “There was an unfortunate incident, yes. But it won’t affect your experience here. The house is in perfect condition.”
A few of the couples murmur in discontent. The first woman takes her husband by the elbow and walks him out.
Zayyan watches as Farhan looks up the incident on his phone.
“I kind of wish I didn’t know about this,” Farhan says after a moment. “This place was really growing on me.”
“At least you can make an informed decision now.”
Farhan shrugs, puts his phone back in his pocket. “Informed about what? Not knowing wouldn’t have hurt me.”
Zayyan pauses. “Then forget you heard it. Focus on the stuff that matters. Could you see yourself being happy here?”
“Yeah. I think so.” Farhan furrows his brow. “I didn’t realize it until now, but I think I’ve been unhappy for a long time.”
They’re both silent for a while.
“Maybe it’s for the best that Noor left me,” Farhan says. “We both deserved more.”
Zayyan stares out at the Manhattan skyline. He has not been unhappy, not the way Farhan has been. But maybe he deserves more, too. He would be well within his rights to leave Cecilia and start over with someone new, someone with whom the magic would be real. Someone simultaneously perfect and true.
• • • •
When Zayyan comes home—for he does, eventually, come home—Cecilia has ash reshteh waiting on the table. She’s turned out the lights and lit the candles, the expensive ones they usually save for birthdays and guests.
Now, of course, he sees her as she really is. She is plain, dull, uninteresting.
He sits down at the dinner table but doesn’t touch his food. They speak of his trip, the kids, her week at work. The conversation begins to crumple in on itself.
In a transparent attempt to save it, Cecilia shows him pictures of their friend’s newborn daughter, a red-cheeked creature with enormous eyes and a pink bow tied across her forehead.
“I know what you’re doing,” he says, after a few of these.
She raises her eyebrows. “Ambushing you with cute baby photos so you’ll agree to give the boys a little sister? Okay, you got me, guilty as charged.”
“The love potions.”
She grows very still.
For a moment, he imagines every possible response she might give. She will deny it, laugh at his accusation, tell him he needs to see a therapist. Or she will grow cold and calculating, ask him how he figured it out, negotiate a path forward with him. Or she will fall to her knees and beg him to forgive her, promise never to bewitch him again.
None of these things happen. Cecilia only nods, as though she’s expected this moment for a long time.
“Why did you keep the recipe books?” he asks. “You must have memorized them by now.”
“I think a part of me wanted you to find them.”
He feels bewildered. “You could have just told me, then.”
“I couldn’t have. I’m not that brave.” More softly, she says, “I loved you from the first time we had lunch together. This was the only way you would love me back.”
“It wasn’t the only way. We could have dated like normal people.”
“Look at me,” she says, with a faint tremor in her voice. “Would you ever have said yes?”
Zayyan doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to. They both know.
And yet it’s true, too, that the texture of his love has changed over the twenty years they’ve shared together. Love at forty isn’t as simple as it was in college, can’t be pinned down to a single chain of cause and effect. There is no way now to disentangle the illusion from the real. He loves her now, not just because of the way she once entranced him, but because of something deeper: the generous way she spends her time, the gentle way she raises their sons.
He remembers years ago, when Cecilia was nearing the end of her labor with Asim after nearly two days of pushing and screaming and trying to breathe, while Zayyan stood helpless by her side. In a moment of lucidity, she made him promise to take care of Ali if she didn’t make it. There was the same tremor in her voice then.
Slowly, he lifts a spoonful of soup to his mouth and swallows it clean.